Angel Scrubb of Medford shoots hoops at the Granny Road Park basketball...

Angel Scrubb of Medford shoots hoops at the Granny Road Park basketball courts in Gordon Heights, which were renovated with federal pandemic relief funds. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

This story was reported by Denise M. BonillaBrinley Hineman, Brianne Ledda, Carl MacGowan, Arielle MartinezDeborah S. Morris, Jean-Paul Salamanca, Nicholas Spangler, Ted PhillipsJoe Werkmeister and Darwin Yanes. It was written by Bonilla and Martinez.

Municipalities across Long Island have been spending an allocated $1 billion in federal pandemic recovery funds on projects that include sewer construction and road repair, but experts said some of the initiatives aren't aligned with the spirit of the relief money's intent.

It’s the biggest pot of federal funding many towns and villages have seen in decades, monies designed to help offset the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic under a stimulus bill called the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, that was approved by Congress in 2021. For Island counties, towns, cities and villages, the money was a windfall that allowed local officials to pursue long-desired projects without asking taxpayers to foot the bill. 

“It’s been one of the positives that came out of COVID,” Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter said. “These are things that normally might have taken us years to scrape up the funding for, and we were able to do it a lot, lot faster than we normally would have been able to.” 

Unlike the federal grants that municipalities often rely on for projects, ARPA money has no strict spending requirements. The funds must be used within four categories — to replace lost revenue, address public health issues, provide premium pay for essential workers and boost infrastructure — but municipalities have great latitude for spending within those classifications. Monies must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. Unused funds return to the federal government.

Data from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the New York State Division of the Budget and the state comptroller's office show that Nassau County received $385 million, Suffolk $286.8 million and the 13 towns a total of $262.8 million. The cities of Long Beach and Glen Cove got $3.4 million and nearly $2.8 million, respectively. Of Island villages, 95 received $70.5 million. In addition, the Shinnecock Indian Nation got more than $10 million.

Among towns, Brookhaven and Hempstead got the most money: $55 million and $51.4 million, respectively, while East Hampton and Shelter Island received the least, $2 million and $246,768. The monies villages received ranged from $16.79 million for Hempstead Village to $1,128 for Dering Harbor in Shelter Island.

Municipalities must submit project and expenditure reports to the treasury department either annually or quarterly, depending on their population and funding amount.

According to the treasury reports, as of Dec. 31 the counties had not earmarked substantial amounts of their funding, and planning for towns varies widely: Oyster Bay still needs to allocate 78.4% of its funding, while Hempstead has more than 98% of its monies earmarked.

“The best part of it was that the federal government gave it to us and left the decision-making to us,” Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer said. “They didn’t put any strings on it, and they said we’re trusting you to do the right thing.”

Ken Girardin, a fellow at the fiscally conservative Albany-based Empire Center think tank, said ARPA money was intended to fill budget gaps and not to pay for new programs.

“The most appropriate use for this funding would be to cover already planned projects that otherwise would have required borrowing,” Girardin said. “If your family gets a cash windfall, you use it to fix the leaky roof before you buy a new, bigger TV.” 

The list of priorities should be to first address direct pandemic response, then to backfill temporary revenue losses to preserve existing services, and then to make one-time investments that aid in recovery, said Patrick Orecki, director of state studies for the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission.

"The most important thing is to not use ARP fiscal relief funds to seed new recurring costs that the money won't be there to support in a couple of years' time," Orecki said, noting that his group does not do research on governments outside New York City. 

Most towns have sprinkled their ARPA money across capital projects ranging from roadwork to park improvements, along with programming and service-related funding, such as for local nonprofits. Huntington took a different approach, budgeting the whole pot of its $22.2 million toward one project: a new sewer system along New York Avenue/Route 110 in Huntington Station.

Town Supervisor Ed Smyth said the board consensus was to focus the money on one project that would have the greatest effect across the town.

“The board didn’t want to slice the money up into everyone’s small projects that would not necessarily have a concentrated impact,” he said. “We took all of our resources and put it in one location.”

Babylon Town divvied up the monies between large-scale projects such as a new YMCA in Wyandanch, which will receive $5 million of the town’s nearly $27.8 million, and a program that has provided $8.5 million in grants to nearly 300 small businesses and nonprofits.

“The first thing we did amongst ourselves was talk about the issues that were created as a result of COVID, and, of course, business shutdowns was number one because literally everything just stopped,” Schaffer said.

Other town boards were not initially in harmony on the use of ARPA monies. In North Hempstead, a plan by Supervisor Jennifer DeSena to spend $3.1 million of its $10.1 million to convert the private septic tanks of businesses on Plandome Road in Manhasset to a public sewer system was voted down last month by board members, who said they wanted to make sure helping private businesses met ARPA guidelines. After consulting with the town attorney, the measure was then unanimously approved by the board on Tuesday.

Robert Donno, of the Manhasset Chamber of Commerce, said about 88 businesses would be eligible, and using the ARPA funds is likely the most “cost-effective” way to get the project done. 

“For the business community, this is going to change the face of Plandome Road,” Donno said. “It’s going to promote stability in the business district, and at the same time, we’re making that investment in public health and environment.”

Data show that among the local governments that report quarterly to the treasury department, the largest share of funds — more than $76.9 million — has been allocated toward alleviating negative economic impacts. Those governments earmarked more than $51.8 million to replace lost revenue and $38.1 million on infrastructure projects.

Hempstead Town has spent almost $33 million of its $51.4 million funding for payroll expenses that spokesman Greg Blower said in an email were for “personnel costs related to the public health and safety as per U.S. treasury guidelines.” Blower did not respond to requests for further explanation.

“I would raise the question: If they needed ARPA money to pay payroll, what did they do with their ordinary revenues that would have paid payroll?” Girardin said.

From the largest town to the smallest, ARPA funds were key for infrastructure improvements, ranging from water treatment to sidewalk construction.

The majority of Brookhaven’s projects concern infrastructure upgrades such as stormwater drains, sidewalks and sewage treatment systems, as well as upgrades to a town composting facility in Manorville.

Shelter Island, comparatively, received only a sliver of funding at $246,768. But the sum was still significant, according to the town’s deputy supervisor, and will be used toward a municipal wastewater treatment system.

“It will definitely help us toward the projects we have to work on,” Amber Brach-Williams said.

Some ARPA infrastructure work is desperately needed, according to town officials.

Oyster Bay is spending $3 million to upgrade the sewer system that serves the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park and Marina. The current system “experiences frequent system failures, which can result in releases of raw sewage to groundwater and ultimately the adjacent harbor,” according to a treasury report description.

“The current injector is old, breaks down, and will be replaced so that the bathrooms no longer back up and allows for increased capacity as the venue blossomed with visitors during and after COVID,” town spokesman Brian Nevin said in an email.

While most ARPA funds are slated for common infrastructure projects — road paving, culverts and recharge basins, for example — some are more innovative. In Smithtown, $62,587 was spent on an examination of drainage systems in St. James as of Dec. 31 — including subterranean cameras to survey trouble spots.

Smithtown Deputy Highway Superintendent Jim Deutsch said the cameras identified blockages caused by root balls, gas lines and even garbage pail covers, or “all the things that float downhill and get into drains.”

The cameras, which the town has been using since 2019 but were paid for with ARPA money last year, run on tracks inserted into the town’s 15- and 30-inch pipes and let workers pinpoint problem areas instead of digging up the whole street.

“It’s not a cheap fix, but it saves a lot of work,” Deutsch said.

The ARPA windfall has not gone solely toward concrete and asphalt necessities. Towns also have earmarked good portions of their funding toward recreational pursuits, from playgrounds and pickleball courts to other park improvements. 

Brookhaven helped rejuvenate deteriorating Granny Road Park in Gordon Heights by rebuilding basketball courts that had been neglected for decades. The more than $113,000 used as of Dec. 31 helped pay for repaving, lighting for night games and fixing a backboard safety hazard, said E. James Freeman, the hamlet’s former civic association president.

The park now hosts more events, including sports tournaments and special programs for disabled children, Freeman said.

“Now you have other individuals who come into the community from all over the place to play basketball and softball and football,” he said. “You give the kids a safe place, a place they can call their own, they will respond,” Freeman said. 

Also in Brookhaven, upgrades at Fireman’s Memorial Park in Ridge are being paid for with $575,000 in ARPA funds.

“We were going to do it anyway, but where were we going to get the money from?” Brookhaven Councilman Michael Loguercio said. “It ended up right in our lap.”

In Islip, nearly $7.7 million will be used for new turf fields and $125,000 is going toward the creation of a playground zip line at Anthony Casamento Park in Bay Shore. Oyster Bay recently approved spending $74,200 for the design and bid process for improvements to the town’s golf course. 

Babylon, Oyster Bay and Islip are using portions of their allotments — $8.5 million, $4.5 million and $2 million, respectively — for direct aid to small businesses and nonprofits.

The public, businesses and nonprofits, Schaffer said, "know best how to spend the money, and we viewed it that a lot of those [infrastructure] things are really town expenses that we should do.” 

But infrastructure projects are really where ARPA money should have gone, Girardin said. 

“This was money that Congress borrowed to keep state and local governments from going insolvent,” Girardin said. “It was never meant to let town supervisors play Santa Claus, and it absolutely was not meant to be paid out to private businesses.”

In East Hampton, money was earmarked to help out the fishing industry, with $70,000 being spent to create a rental storage area for fishing gear such as lobster traps, in Montauk.

“It’s been widely supported by the fisheries committee,” Councilman David Lys said.

In Southold, the town is allocating $100,000 to local anti-hunger and human services organizations. 

“These are intended to be a partial reimbursement for the dramatic increased costs associated with higher demand on services caused by the pandemic,” Supervisor Scott Russell said.

In Riverhead, roughly $150,000 was allocated to six local nonprofits, including the Hallockville Museum Farm and East End Arts Center.

Diane Burke, executive director of the center, said the funding has been able to help in maintaining programs.

“Making it work was challenging at best," Burke said. “But when the town came in with this funding, we said, ‘Now we know we can do it' . . . It’s a gift that came just at the right time.” 

Southampton used the money on items that are typically cost-prohibitive, including $1 million to purchase a medical office building in Hampton Bays that will be used to relocate town trustee offices, housing and community services personnel and bay constables.

“It’s basically things we hoped to do but just didn’t have available funds for,” Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. 

Like many town officials, Schaffer said ARPA monies came with a responsibility to allocate the funds prudently.

“We wanted to make sure it was used for what it was designed for,” he said. “We didn’t want it to become four, five years afterward and everybody says, ‘Oh, God, look at what they did and how they wasted this money when it should have gone to X, Y and Z.' ”

Municipalities across Long Island have been spending an allocated $1 billion in federal pandemic recovery funds on projects that include sewer construction and road repair, but experts said some of the initiatives aren't aligned with the spirit of the relief money's intent.

It’s the biggest pot of federal funding many towns and villages have seen in decades, monies designed to help offset the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic under a stimulus bill called the American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, that was approved by Congress in 2021. For Island counties, towns, cities and villages, the money was a windfall that allowed local officials to pursue long-desired projects without asking taxpayers to foot the bill. 

“It’s been one of the positives that came out of COVID,” Islip Town Supervisor Angie Carpenter said. “These are things that normally might have taken us years to scrape up the funding for, and we were able to do it a lot, lot faster than we normally would have been able to.” 

Unlike the federal grants that municipalities often rely on for projects, ARPA money has no strict spending requirements. The funds must be used within four categories — to replace lost revenue, address public health issues, provide premium pay for essential workers and boost infrastructure — but municipalities have great latitude for spending within those classifications. Monies must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026. Unused funds return to the federal government.

WHAT TO KNOW

  • The American Rescue Plan Act, or ARPA, was a COVID-19 pandemic stimulus bill Congress approved in 2021.
  • Long Island municipalities received more than $1 billion.
  • Funds must be allocated by the end of 2024 and spent by the end of 2026.

13 LI towns get $262.8 million in ARPA funds

Data from the U.S. Department of the Treasury, the New York State Division of the Budget and the state comptroller's office show that Nassau County received $385 million, Suffolk $286.8 million and the 13 towns a total of $262.8 million. The cities of Long Beach and Glen Cove got $3.4 million and nearly $2.8 million, respectively. Of Island villages, 95 received $70.5 million. In addition, the Shinnecock Indian Nation got more than $10 million.

Among towns, Brookhaven and Hempstead got the most money: $55 million and $51.4 million, respectively, while East Hampton and Shelter Island received the least, $2 million and $246,768. The monies villages received ranged from $16.79 million for Hempstead Village to $1,128 for Dering Harbor in Shelter Island.

Municipalities must submit project and expenditure reports to the treasury department either annually or quarterly, depending on their population and funding amount.

According to the treasury reports, as of Dec. 31 the counties had not earmarked substantial amounts of their funding, and planning for towns varies widely: Oyster Bay still needs to allocate 78.4% of its funding, while Hempstead has more than 98% of its monies earmarked.

If your family gets a cash windfall, you use it to fix the leaky roof before you buy a new bigger TV.

—Ken Girardin, Empire Center fellow

“The best part of it was that the federal government gave it to us and left the decision-making to us,” Babylon Town Supervisor Rich Schaffer said. “They didn’t put any strings on it, and they said we’re trusting you to do the right thing.”

Ken Girardin, a fellow at the fiscally conservative Albany-based Empire Center think tank, said ARPA money was intended to fill budget gaps and not to pay for new programs.

“The most appropriate use for this funding would be to cover already planned projects that otherwise would have required borrowing,” Girardin said. “If your family gets a cash windfall, you use it to fix the leaky roof before you buy a new, bigger TV.” 

The list of priorities should be to first address direct pandemic response, then to backfill temporary revenue losses to preserve existing services, and then to make one-time investments that aid in recovery, said Patrick Orecki, director of state studies for the nonpartisan Citizens Budget Commission.

"The most important thing is to not use ARP fiscal relief funds to seed new recurring costs that the money won't be there to support in a couple of years' time," Orecki said, noting that his group does not do research on governments outside New York City. 

Most towns have sprinkled their ARPA money across capital projects ranging from roadwork to park improvements, along with programming and service-related funding, such as for local nonprofits. Huntington took a different approach, budgeting the whole pot of its $22.2 million toward one project: a new sewer system along New York Avenue/Route 110 in Huntington Station.

Town Supervisor Ed Smyth said the board consensus was to focus the money on one project that would have the greatest effect across the town.

“The board didn’t want to slice the money up into everyone’s small projects that would not necessarily have a concentrated impact,” he said. “We took all of our resources and put it in one location.”

Babylon projects include new YMCA

Babylon Town divvied up the monies between large-scale projects such as a new YMCA in Wyandanch, which will receive $5 million of the town’s nearly $27.8 million, and a program that has provided $8.5 million in grants to nearly 300 small businesses and nonprofits.

“The first thing we did amongst ourselves was talk about the issues that were created as a result of COVID, and, of course, business shutdowns was number one because literally everything just stopped,” Schaffer said.

Other town boards were not initially in harmony on the use of ARPA monies. In North Hempstead, a plan by Supervisor Jennifer DeSena to spend $3.1 million of its $10.1 million to convert the private septic tanks of businesses on Plandome Road in Manhasset to a public sewer system was voted down last month by board members, who said they wanted to make sure helping private businesses met ARPA guidelines. After consulting with the town attorney, the measure was then unanimously approved by the board on Tuesday.

Robert Donno, of the Manhasset Chamber of Commerce, said about 88 businesses would be eligible, and using the ARPA funds is likely the most “cost-effective” way to get the project done. 

“For the business community, this is going to change the face of Plandome Road,” Donno said. “It’s going to promote stability in the business district, and at the same time, we’re making that investment in public health and environment.”

Data show that among the local governments that report quarterly to the treasury department, the largest share of funds — more than $76.9 million — has been allocated toward alleviating negative economic impacts. Those governments earmarked more than $51.8 million to replace lost revenue and $38.1 million on infrastructure projects.

Hempstead Town has spent almost $33 million of its $51.4 million funding for payroll expenses that spokesman Greg Blower said in an email were for “personnel costs related to the public health and safety as per U.S. treasury guidelines.” Blower did not respond to requests for further explanation.

“I would raise the question: If they needed ARPA money to pay payroll, what did they do with their ordinary revenues that would have paid payroll?” Girardin said.

Funds key for infrastructure work

From the largest town to the smallest, ARPA funds were key for infrastructure improvements, ranging from water treatment to sidewalk construction.

The majority of Brookhaven’s projects concern infrastructure upgrades such as stormwater drains, sidewalks and sewage treatment systems, as well as upgrades to a town composting facility in Manorville.

Shelter Island, comparatively, received only a sliver of funding at $246,768. But the sum was still significant, according to the town’s deputy supervisor, and will be used toward a municipal wastewater treatment system.

“It will definitely help us toward the projects we have to work on,” Amber Brach-Williams said.

Some ARPA infrastructure work is desperately needed, according to town officials.

Oyster Bay is spending $3 million to upgrade the sewer system that serves the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial Park and Marina. The current system “experiences frequent system failures, which can result in releases of raw sewage to groundwater and ultimately the adjacent harbor,” according to a treasury report description.

“The current injector is old, breaks down, and will be replaced so that the bathrooms no longer back up and allows for increased capacity as the venue blossomed with visitors during and after COVID,” town spokesman Brian Nevin said in an email.

Underground cameras used to spot drainage issues

In Smithtown, $62,587 in federal COVID aid was spent on an...

In Smithtown, $62,587 in federal COVID aid was spent on an examination of drainage systems in St. James — including subterranean cameras to survey trouble spots. Photos taken by a camera show obstructions in underground pipes. The cameras run on tracks inserted into the town’s 15- and 30-inch pipes and let workers pinpoint problem areas instead of digging up the whole street. Credit: Smithtown Highway Department

While most ARPA funds are slated for common infrastructure projects — road paving, culverts and recharge basins, for example — some are more innovative. In Smithtown, $62,587 was spent on an examination of drainage systems in St. James as of Dec. 31 — including subterranean cameras to survey trouble spots.

Smithtown Deputy Highway Superintendent Jim Deutsch said the cameras identified blockages caused by root balls, gas lines and even garbage pail covers, or “all the things that float downhill and get into drains.”

The cameras, which the town has been using since 2019 but were paid for with ARPA money last year, run on tracks inserted into the town’s 15- and 30-inch pipes and let workers pinpoint problem areas instead of digging up the whole street.

“It’s not a cheap fix, but it saves a lot of work,” Deutsch said.

The ARPA windfall has not gone solely toward concrete and asphalt necessities. Towns also have earmarked good portions of their funding toward recreational pursuits, from playgrounds and pickleball courts to other park improvements. 

In Gordon Heights, rebuilding basketball courts

Brookhaven helped rejuvenate deteriorating Granny Road Park in Gordon Heights by rebuilding basketball courts that had been neglected for decades. The more than $113,000 used as of Dec. 31 helped pay for repaving, lighting for night games and fixing a backboard safety hazard, said E. James Freeman, the hamlet’s former civic association president.

The park now hosts more events, including sports tournaments and special programs for disabled children, Freeman said.

You give the kids a safe place, a place they can call their own, they will respond.

—E. James Freeman, Gordon Heights' former civic association president

“Now you have other individuals who come into the community from all over the place to play basketball and softball and football,” he said. “You give the kids a safe place, a place they can call their own, they will respond,” Freeman said. 

In Brookhaven, upgrades at Fireman’s Memorial Park in Ridge are...

In Brookhaven, upgrades at Fireman’s Memorial Park in Ridge are being paid for with $575,000 in ARPA funds. Credit: John Roca

Also in Brookhaven, upgrades at Fireman’s Memorial Park in Ridge are being paid for with $575,000 in ARPA funds.

“We were going to do it anyway, but where were we going to get the money from?” Brookhaven Councilman Michael Loguercio said. “It ended up right in our lap.”

Islip funds earmarked for turf fields, zip line

In Islip, nearly $7.7 million will be used for new turf fields and $125,000 is going toward the creation of a playground zip line at Anthony Casamento Park in Bay Shore. Oyster Bay recently approved spending $74,200 for the design and bid process for improvements to the town’s golf course. 

Babylon, Oyster Bay and Islip are using portions of their allotments — $8.5 million, $4.5 million and $2 million, respectively — for direct aid to small businesses and nonprofits.

The public, businesses and nonprofits, Schaffer said, "know best how to spend the money, and we viewed it that a lot of those [infrastructure] things are really town expenses that we should do.” 

But infrastructure projects are really where ARPA money should have gone, Girardin said. 

“This was money that Congress borrowed to keep state and local governments from going insolvent,” Girardin said. “It was never meant to let town supervisors play Santa Claus, and it absolutely was not meant to be paid out to private businesses.”

In East Hampton, money was earmarked to help out the fishing industry, with $70,000 being spent to create a rental storage area for fishing gear such as lobster traps, in Montauk.

“It’s been widely supported by the fisheries committee,” Councilman David Lys said.

In Southold, the town is allocating $100,000 to local anti-hunger and human services organizations. 

“These are intended to be a partial reimbursement for the dramatic increased costs associated with higher demand on services caused by the pandemic,” Supervisor Scott Russell said.

Nonprofits benefit from ARPA funds

The Hallockville Museum Farm got about $150,000 from the Town of...

The Hallockville Museum Farm got about $150,000 from the Town of Riverhead. Shown is the museum's executive director, Roberta Shoten, on March 30. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

In Riverhead, roughly $150,000 was allocated to six local nonprofits, including the Hallockville Museum Farm and East End Arts Center.

Diane Burke, executive director of the center, said the funding has been able to help in maintaining programs.

When the town came in with this funding, we said 'Now we know we can do it' ... It's a gift that came just at the right time.

—Diane Burke, executive director of East End Arts Center

“Making it work was challenging at best," Burke said. “But when the town came in with this funding, we said, ‘Now we know we can do it' . . . It’s a gift that came just at the right time.” 

Southampton used the money on items that are typically cost-prohibitive, including $1 million to purchase a medical office building in Hampton Bays that will be used to relocate town trustee offices, housing and community services personnel and bay constables.

“It’s basically things we hoped to do but just didn’t have available funds for,” Supervisor Jay Schneiderman said. 

Like many town officials, Schaffer said ARPA monies came with a responsibility to allocate the funds prudently.

“We wanted to make sure it was used for what it was designed for,” he said. “We didn’t want it to become four, five years afterward and everybody says, ‘Oh, God, look at what they did and how they wasted this money when it should have gone to X, Y and Z.' ”

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months
ACT NOWSALE ENDS SOON | CANCEL ANYTIME